Robert Redford weaves together a captivating tale in ‘The Company You Keep’
There are a number of captivating scenes in The Company You Keep that draw attention to how much has changed in America since the 1970s. Actually, these scenes expose, somewhat hauntingly and quite vividly, how different one generation is from the other, and the film, directed with emotional depth by Robert Redford, points out what may be missing on today’s cultural landscape—honest journalism (what? Bloggers won’t do?) and a bastion of individuals who care about their country so strongly that they’d put their lives on the line while fighting for justice.
That’s enough to tackle in one movie, but even more refreshing here is how well Redford, who also headlines the film, manages to take the very best nuances from Neil Gordon’s novel, from which this outing is based, and show both sides of the culural equation by asking: What becomes of the (aging) activist of yesteryear? Does “growing up” mean leaving behind certain ideals?
These fine touches help make The Company You Keep one of the standout films of the season. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s nice to see Redford back—both acting and directing. Although he’s morphed into a far more superior director over the past few decades as The Horse Whisperer, Quiz Show and A River Runs Through It so vividly prove. Few directors know how to capture to such a winning degree the many layers of the human psyche and the real motivation behind a character’s behavior. And even fewer manage to steer their actors into fully embodying their roles—the “less is more” technique. What we get here, then, is a stunning cat-and-mouse suspense story that doesn’t insult its audience. It’s a slow-moving affair, but that’s good, so stick with it.
Redford plays Jim Grant, a public interest lawyer and single father raising his young daughter in the burbs of Albany, New York. Things begin shifting dramatically for him after a former ’60s/’70s antiwar radical (Susan Sarandon in a standout extended cameo) wanted for murder for a botched-up bank robbery more than 30 years ago, intentionally gets caught by the FBI. The event piques the interest of an ambitious reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who begins investigating some of the others whom the FBI claim were involved in the event—a radical group known as The Weatherman Underground, who weren’t necessarily violent back in the day as they were fierce advocates for change. Shepard’s research leads him to Grant. Was he a member of the group? Has he been living underground ever since?
Sensing that the foundation on which he is standing is about to collapse, Grant reacts by hitting the road. But there’s a logical reason behind this seemingly self-destructive act. It’s just that nobody—including the audience—knows what it is. Is he innocent? Guilty? And what really happened back in the 1970s?
What follows is a series of reconnections. On the road, Grant reaches out to some of the posse he once knew—not all of them are “in hiding” and not all of them were or still are being sought for the murder in question. But each step Grant takes into his past reopens old wounds. This is fascinating to watch, and some of Hollywood’s finest creatures (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper) are on board, some of them playing family members, others part of the original radical collective. Most stunning is Julie Christie (my, how we have missed you!), who plays a prominent woman from Grant’s past, somebody whose spirit hasn’t wavered and whose strong will simply won’t allow her to back down from her core principles. There aren’t many actresses that boast such resilient panache, and Christie is downright transcendent here.
Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s Shepard is hot on Grant’s trail. (So is the FBI and Terrence Howard leads the pack with that plot element. FBI newbie Anna Kendrick seems wasted here.) At one point when elder and youngster do meet face to face, Grant pins Shepard against an emotional wall and muses: “Secrets are dangerous things, Ben. We all think we want to know them. But if you’ve ever kept one yourself then you understand to do so is not just knowing something about someone else, it’s discovering something about yourself.”
That kind of provocative dialogue bolsters a great deal of this thinking-man’s film, which also pulls out a few more surprises by the end the tale. Some plot points require audiences to suspend belief—Redford’s age and the timing of the entire ’70s debacle to name a few—but what this outing seems to do best is illuminate how much has changed in America (the generation), and how much hasn’t—injustice, greed and the slippery slope of politics.
Go. You’ll be in good company here.
The Company You Keep
★★★ (out of four)
With Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling and Stanley Tucci. With Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper and Susan Sarandon.
Based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Written by Lem Dobbs. Directed by Robert Redford. A Sony Pictures Classic s release. Rated R. 125 minutes.